It was a dark and stormy night in Melbourne, the winds howling, spotlights shooting up into the scudding clouds, helicopters circling above. Despite the chill of winter, the bare trees along Collins St were lit up like green, verdant lamps as a long line of Munchkins, many also dressed in green, scuttled, giggling, along the footpath.
Melbourne has gone green but not - in this case - in the conservation sense. Instead, its trams, street banners, billboards, even bank windows, are blanketed with the image of a green-faced witch - Elphaba, star of the big new musical in town, Wicked.
The trail of Munchkins - in reality, the audience who had just been to the lavish premiere of Wicked at the Regent Theatre, also on Collins St - headed immediately afterwards to the Sofitel Melbourne on Collins and its enchanted pink ballroom full of swirling mist where they quaffed bright green magic potions and partied hard. The cocktails, called Defying Gravity, lived up to their name as the revels thumped on until dawn. For some, negotiating their way out of the hotel's entrance way proved a tricky business. A pity they didn't have their broomsticks.
The post-premiere party was an intimate affair, Melbourne-style, with 1900 guests and 10,000 canapes, designed to attract maximum media coverage and just one aspect of a carefully orchestrated marketing plan to bring tourists to town to enjoy a Wicked night out.
But you can't base such a massive campaign on a product which doesn't live up to the hype. Despite my innate indifference towards musicals in general, Wicked proved to be a slick yet refreshing show aimed at adults and children alike, something you can take the whole family to. Happily, the kids in the opening night audience seemed entirely enthralled, even if they did have to take the occasional toilet break during the three-hour show. And the 2162-seat Regent Theatre, which opened in 1929, has the perfect Rococo ambience for the wildly imaginative musical.
If Wicked co-producer John Frost's predictions come true, as voiced at a more intimate cocktail party for NZ media the night before, the spectacle will boot up the city's already thriving tourist trade. (According to Victoria Premier John Brumby, Melbourne grew its domestic tourism by 5.5 per cent last year, to 6.7 million visitors, as opposed to 1.7 per cent across other states).
At this point in time, the Melbourne production has cost $12.5 million to stage, with $10 million worth of tickets sold already, nearly 30 per cent from outside the state of Victoria. The ANZ Bank alone has backed it to the tune of $1 million. Frost says Wicked is in the city for the long haul - eight years, possibly even a decade. Because it is a complicated, props-heavy staging, he doesn't want to tour it and adds that Sydney has only just woken up to the fact that Wicked is a proven tourist puller. He had some pretty harsh words to say about that slack attitude - and Frost is a Sydney-sider.
But what is so special about Wicked, a "prequel" to The Wizard of Oz? It has impressive statistics as a multi-Emmy Award winner which started life in New York and has been franchised into parallel productions in Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo and Stuttgart, attracting audiences of more than 13 million and grossing more than $1 billion.
Based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, and adapted into another book by American writer Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life), with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Enchanted, The Prince Of Egypt), Wicked has more narrative bite than many contemporary musicals, with a story that takes aim at intolerance, conformity and the difference between truth and recorded history.
In short, it explains the presence of the red shoes, the Lion, the Tin Man and the devastation of the Kansas tornado so pivotal to the plot of The Wizard of Oz.
It's a clever story with lots of humour and surprises as it darkens towards the end. Elphaba, sister of the crippled Nessarose, is born green and unloved by her father. When she grows into a teenager, the sisters are sent to a boarding school run by Madame Morrible (the redoubtable Maggie Kirkpatrick), where Elphaba is picked out to sharpen her magical skills, of which she has much more than anyone suspects.
Elphaba's appearance means she has always been rejected and feared, and so she has quite the sharp tongue and brain, which leads to some of the most amusing exchanges with blonde bimbo schoolmate Glinda, whose obsession with shoes and boys later becomes something more valuable to both: a true friendship. In The Wizard of Oz, the two will go on to become the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch of the North.
Without giving too much away, the set, presided over by a huge roaring dragon, is magnificent and mobile, with turning clock interiors indicating the countdown towards destiny, flying red monkeys, a team of singing Munchkins, a handsome if self-inflated hero Fiyero (played to cheers by Australian Idol finalist Rob Mills), and the finding and loss of love. Then there is the Wonderful Wizard of Oz himself, played by Rob Guest, a wizard who proves not so wonderful at all. As for Madame Morrible, she abandons teaching for public relations ...
Amanda Harrison and Lucy Durack, who play Elphaba and Glinda, have that perfect combination for musicals - convincing acting, gorgeous singing and a terrific capacity for comedy, especially Durack, who brought the house down with songs Popular and Dancing Through Life.
Poor Elphaba. Kind of heart and good in intentions, she eventually decides to live up to the stereotype, based on her appearance and propaganda, that she is indeed wicked. The finale of the first act, as she rises above the stage in righteous anger and sings Defying Gravity, is awesome, worth the ticket price alone.
Linda Herrick, normally no fan of musicals, travelled to Melbourne courtesy of Tourism Victoria and Qantas.
WHILE YOU'RE IN TOWN
If you are going to Melbourne to see Wicked, consider these other events as a way of adding value and enjoyment to your holiday:
A wordless dance-drama adaptation of Tim Burton's classic film about the innocent boy whose scissor hands prevent him from being close to other people. Created by British choreographer Matthew Bourne, this touring production has wowed audiences on Broadway and in Los Angeles and Sydney.
Arts Centre, to Aug 3; www.edwardscissorhands.com.au
The Coronation of Poppea
If you are fast you can catch Victorian Opera's production of Monteverdi's 1643 opera about Nero's marriage, a union of ruthlessness and evil, starring David Hansen and Tiffany Speight.
South Melbourne Town Hall, July 22, 24, 26; www.victorianopera.com.au
If you miss out on that, Victorian Opera also presents Donizetti's Elixir of Love, directed by Stephen Medcalf, next month. It features two alternating casts, headed by David Hobson and Roy Best as Nemorino.
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Aug 11-21; see website above.
The ATC will stage David Harrower's Blackbird later this year; this Melbourne Theatre Company production, directed by Peter Evans, and starring Alison Bell and Greg Stone, opened last Thursday and charts the relationship between an older man and an unhappy younger woman he used to know when she was a girl. R16.
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, to Aug 16; www.mtc.com.au
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Our ATC production, which opened just over a week ago, is hot stuff. Let's see if director Gale Edwards and the MTC can do as well with a cast led by Essie Davis and Grant Piro.
Arts Centre Playhouse, Aug 9-Sep 13; see website above
World premieres of three highly athletic works by three choreographers - Nicolo Fonte, Matjash Mrozewski and Stephen Baynes - commissioned by Australian Ballet to highlight the partnership between dance and music.
Arts Centre, State Theatre, Aug 28-Sep 8; www.australianballet.com.au